Like many people, I have a specific slate of movies I turn to whenever I am bored or want to relax after a long day at work. Many of the films are humorous, such as The Princess Bride, Spaceballs, and The Emperor’s New Groove. Some have an endearing charm to them, like My Neighbor Totoro or Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (if you don’t believe me, watch it for yourself). Others can be quoted nearly line for line – prime examples of this include Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Goonies. However, one film that has served to encapsulate all three of these elements is Napoleon Dynamite. The combination of humor, quotability, and sweetness is one reason why I find myself reaching for it consistently. In addition, the film offers some unique lessons that can be useful in our lives—even in this current age of family confinement.
Preston, Idaho seems to be the perfect location to practice social distancing. In the case of Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder), that’s probably all he wants in life—for days to blend into a blur. He wants little to do with older brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), who’s attempting to date remotely and really enjoys nachos. It doesn’t seem like he wants to be around his grandmother, who’s willing to get out and try new things (until she pays the price at the sand dunes). In fact, Napoleon and Kip’s parents are nowhere to be found! Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) basically acts as a pseudo-babysitter while eating as much steak as possible, Deb (Tina Majorino) comes over to peddle her limited photography skills before running away, and Tina the llama wants to eat nothing Napoleon flings her way (and I don’t blame her).
One of the reasons I appreciate the movie so much is how high school life is depicted. The four years before college were not always the easiest for me. PE was inherently boring (including tetherball); dating was king, yet I often spoke before I understood the effects of my words; and gossip was the high octane fuel that created consistently awkward experiences for all. Seeing it come alive on screen caused those memories to rush back, but in a manner that caused laughter instead of cringing. (By the way, I’m sure Napoleon actually did his homework, but it didn’t make it into Jared Hess’s final cut. Instead, the afterschool meeting of the Happy Hands Club was replaced with Napoleon’s endless quest to secure tots and score sweet jumps on Pedro’s Sledgehammer. I’m fine with the director’s decision.)
Despite the hilarious situations the characters find themselves in, each of them have deeper layers that are revealed over the course of the film. Kip wants acceptance (and gets it in Lafawnduh [Shondrella Avery]); Uncle Rico is deperate to travel back in time and win the state football title (but instead resorts to selling plastic bowls door-to-door before meeting Rex); Pedro (Efren Ramirez) reaches for the stars (and succeeds at becoming student body president); while Napoleon is just Napoleon, the liger drawing, leisure suit wearing, impressive dancer who comes to the rescue in the end.
In fact, it’s only because of friendship and loyalty that Kip and Lafawnduh get together, Napoleon helps Pedro win the election, and Deb remains the steadying influence Napoleon needs. The Bible has quite a bit to say about this (1 Samuel 20; Proverbs 17:17). In the unique times we currently find ourselves in, we are to be there for those who need us, even if we can’t physically be there to help. A letter, a phone call, a meeting on Zoom—anything helps.
In addition, I’m reminded of a scene in the film where Napoleon brazenly asks Deb at lunch why she’s drinking lowfat milk. It’s awkward but brings up a good question: why do we do the things we do? Is it for attention? Is it because everyone else does the same thing? Is it because we want to be the opposite of the things we see in others or society? Or could it be something else? As Christians, we’re called to be ambassadors/representatives for Jesus (see 2 Corinthians 5:20), so we should be the leaders whose lives people want to emulate. Perhaps Napoleon was on to something.
In this time of uncertainty, it’s good to know that my copy of Napoleon Dynamite is on the shelf, ready at a moment’s notice to provide comfort, quotability, and hilarity. That is, unless my family decides to hide it again . . .